On a whim and a prayer: Giving that perfect gift

Were you in a panic, not sure what to get that special someone this Christmas?

My fellow social scientists have the answer for you. For economists, the perfect gift is simple: cash. In fact, they are surprised that anyone would give anything else. There is even lively economics literature on the "deadweight loss of Christmas".

One economist writing in the American Economic Review estimated this loss at between 10 and 33 per cent - meaning that gifts we buy others are worth up to a third less to them than what they would buy for themselves if we just gave them the money instead.

Imagine the look on the kids' little faces when, instead of finding presents under the tree, they each get a crisp $100 bill instead.

I proposed that once to my wife and she suggested that we also start a fund to pay for their counselling.

Perhaps you are fretting that you might give someone a bad gift.

How important is the perfect gift? Sociologists have taken up this question.

In a 2008 study in the journal Social Cognition, four sociologists did an experiment in which young men and women who had just met gave one another gift certificates.

Unbeknown to them, the researchers manipulated the gifts, giving half of the recipients popular gift tokens, and the other half embarrassing ones.

Let's consider this from the point of view of a participant. You sign up for an experiment to help out a sociology professor, because you're a good person. You meet an attractive person in the experiment, and give him a gift token for a nice bookstore. Maybe he will go out with you later, right?

Well, the researcher switches your book gift for something like acne cream. Perhaps someone should do a study about why sociologists don't want you to be happy.

So what happened when the participants got a bad gift? The answer depended on gender. Women who got an undesirable token shrugged it off, while men who got bad certificates judged themselves to be very dissimilar from the women who gave them. In other words, it's easier for women to wreck a new relationship with a bad gift.

Fortunately, in perhaps the most unsurprising finding of the decade, scholars in the science journal PLOS One published an article in 2013 with the self-explanatory title Women Are Better At Selecting Gifts Than Men.

Somebody actually might have gotten tenure figuring that one out.

What is the effect of bad gifts given within established relationships? According to the priest and writer Thomas a Kempis: "A wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover as the love of the giver." In other words, it's the thought that counts. Of course, Kempis was a penniless renunciant monk, so his gifts were probably pretty cheap.

Psychologists say the thought does indeed count - but only up to a point. In one 2012 study published in The Journal Of Experimental Psychology, participants were asked to recall good and bad gifts they had received from loved ones.

Surprisingly, recipients paid relatively little attention to the thought behind gifts they liked. But receivers of bad gifts positively evaluated the thought behind them.

So go ahead and give your tennis- loving wife hockey tickets - she'll say it's the thought that counts! I wish you the best of luck with that.

One 2002 study by two psychologists titled What Makes For A Merry Christmas? in the Journal Of Happiness Studies found that people reported feeling happier when their holidays focused more on religious faith, and less on money.

This marks a major rift in the social sciences. While economists say you should give cold cash, psychologists apparently believe you should just say a nice little prayer for each person in lieu of a gift.

Either way, you'll be a huge hit.

In truth, I've been a bit too hard here on my fellow social scientists.

What the studies are saying is simple: Try to give people what they value, but if you mess up, it isn't a big deal to the people who truly love you. Above all, give of yourself, and share your affection abundantly.

Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up nicely when he said: "The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing."

So there you have it: a guide to the social science of gift-giving. Best wishes from our entire profession for what is the most joyous time of the year, and for the inevitable regression to the mean that follows.


• The writer is president of the American Enterprise Institute - a not-for-profit institution dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics and social welfare, and a contributing NYT opinion writer.

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